Commencement Address

His Excellency Kofi A. Annan
Secretary-General of the United Nations
Doctor of Humane Letters

President Swygert,
Students, Friends,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me begin by congratulating the students who graduate today.  You have much to be proud of.  With a deeper understanding of the world, you will now enter it.  With wider horizons reaching across lines of religion, race and nation, you will now seek to change that world. 

And with a renewed commitment to making it better -- not just for yourselves, but for your fellow citizens, here and around the world -- you can change it.

                Let me also congratulate the parents who have gathered here today.  You, too, have much to be proud of.  Your persistence and dedication, your sacrifices and your support, have helped your sons and daughters make the most of their young lives so far.  This is your day, too.

I cannot hide the fact that this commencement today, this audience -- this opportunity to share this glorious day with you -- is of very special significance to me.  As an African among African-Americans, I value deeply the legacy of Howard University.  It is one of the great institutions of African and African-American learning in the world. 

This honorary degree is indeed a great honour for me, not least because I follow in the line of such distinguished African leaders as Leopold Senghor and Desmond Tutu.

Howard University was established in the noble cause of educating African-Americans.  Over the years, it has also trained many Africans who have gone on to make major contributions to their countries and to the world.  And throughout our common history, Howard and the United Nations have fought side by side -- in the independence struggle of African countries, and in the fight to end apartheid in South Africa.

As Africans and African-Americans, we are joined in our debt to a pioneer of progress, for Howard and the United Nations.

One of the greatest men ever to serve the United Nations, Ralph Bunche also founded Howard's political science department.  During my years as head of United Nations peacekeeping, I always kept a picture of Bunche on my wall, hoping to gain courage and inspiration from his life and work.  Indeed, I believe his life is one of the great untold stories of African-American achievement in our century. 

From his days as a star at UCLA to his Ph.D. at Harvard, to his pioneering work as a researcher in race studies and civil rights right here at Howard, Bunche was destined for greatness.  

What no one could have predicted was that he would put his extraordinary abilities at the service of world peace.  From Cyprus to Kashmir to the Congo to the Middle East, Bunche exemplified the highest values of the United Nations Charter.  It was for his historic role in Palestine that Bunche was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950.

In his acceptance speech, Bunche declared that "the United Nations exists not merely to preserve the peace but also to make change -- even radical change -- possible without violent upheaval." 

One of my favourite stories from his life is not from his many courageous missions for world peace, but from right here at Howard.  In the late 1920's, when he was still a young member of the faculty, a group of Howard students picketed the segregated restaurant in the Capitol building and were arrested for doing so.

The President of Howard, fearing that the students had jeopardized the college's congressional appropriations, insisted that the student leader be brought before a faculty disciplinary committee.

After a long argument, Bunche convinced the faculty that the students should not be punished, but rather rewarded for their demonstration.  This shows how one man can make a difference, in ringing about radical change.

Friends: Nowhere today is radical change more acutely needed  -- or more dramatically in evidence -- than in Africa.  Whether we find our more recent roots in Africa or not -- of course, we all descend from Lucy in Ethiopia -- all of us share the same mixture of feelings about the state of Africa today: pride in its past, disappointment with its present predicament, and hope for its future.

As my friend, Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel laureate likes to say, criticism -- like charity -- starts at home.  

In the early 1990s, many African countries introduced political and economic reforms.  Political systems opened up, and higher commodity prices helped bring economic recovery.  These gains are now in jeopardy.  Long-dormant rivalries have reemerged to threaten new conflicts, while festering wars and unruly militias inflict great suffering on civilian populations, making peace ever more distant. 

Many of these conflicts are rooted in a culture of armed intolerance -- whether it be ethnic, religious or social.  We know that Africa's history -- and reality -- is full of examples of coexistence and cooperation across borders and creeds, defying difference and inspiring unity.  Yet we also know that some leaders have always exploited ethnic differences, sowing hatred where they could not provide peace or prosperity.

The consequences are there for all to see.  Ethnic hatred has inspired unspeakable crimes in Africa in recent years -- above all the genocide in Rwanda. 

Beyond Central Africa, political divisions, territorial disputes and senseless power struggles continue to obstruct economic progress and good governance, making every peace fragile, and every division explosive.

The numbers can seem dry, but they are tragically telling.  In Congo-Brazzaville, a conflict that has gone almost unnoticed by the world has claimed thousands of lives.  In the first four months of this year alone, the renewal of civil war in Angola has displaced 780,000 people, bringing to some 1.5 million the number who have been driven from their homes. 

The conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, where human wave attacks have produced thousands of battlefield casualties and deaths, has displaced over 550,000 people.  Some 440,000 refugees have poured out of Sierra Leone into Guinea and Liberia during an eight-year conflict, characterized by brutality, rape and murder.  Currently, some 310,000 people are displaced within Sierra Leone.  The total number of African refugees, displaced persons and still vulnerable returnees presently exceeds seven million.

The challenge is great indeed.

But I believe it can be met successfully, if it is met comprehensively.  When I delivered my Report on Conflict in Africa a year ago last month, I told the Security Council, and I say to you again today:

For too long, conflict in Africa has been seen as inevitable or intractable, or both.  It is neither.  Conflict in Africa, as everywhere, is caused by human action, and can be ended by human action.  But that action requires imagination, persistence, patience and, above all, will.

It requires the political will, specifically, to solve conflicts by political and not military means; to take good governance seriously, and to promote economic growth.

One way the United Nations has strengthened its conflict-prevention efforts is by helping to stamp out the culture of impunity which has allowed the men of war to kill and maim for too long without any fear of justice.  Through the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the United Nations is playing a leading role in the quest for justice for the victims of genocide. 

The Tribunal made history in September of last year when it became the first international court ever to convict and punish individuals for that most heinous of crimes.  A graduate of the Howard University Law School, has played a pivotal role in this historic process as presiding judge of the appeal chamber for the Rwanda Tribunal.  Judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, who is also the President of the Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, has given a splendid example of courage and determination in the face of evil, which should make both the United Nations and Howard deeply proud.

In Africa, as everywhere, it is the peoples and leaders themselves who must make the critical choice for peace -- within and between nations.  More and more, the world is recognizing that what happens within borders will greatly affect what happens between them.

States that promote tolerance, respect human rights, invest in education, prize their ethnic diversity, and pursue responsive policies of governance in their internal affairs can help assure the absence of external conflict.  Let me conclude by citing one vital example: Nigeria.

There, General Abubakar seized the challenge of Nigeria's future, and made the choice for genuine democracy and the rule of law.  Later this month, I will take part in the inauguration of the elected President, Olusegun Obasanjo, to whom you had the wisdom of awarding an honorary degree in 1981.  Nigeria's prospects are now brighter than they have been for many years.  I was privileged to assist Nigeria in this process, and the United Nations will remain actively engaged in assisting its successful consolidation.

What Nigeria's recent history shows -- and what South Africa has been showing us since the end of Apartheid -- is that sound and sober leadership can transform a nation's prospects.  It shows that the past need not be prologue; that Africa can turn a new leaf; and that a new generation can be asked to shoulder Africa's burdens with faith in the future.


We know that the challenges facing Africa -- pluralism, democracy, prosperity -- are shared by many other parts of the world.

This is most urgently the case today in Kosovo.  The vicious and systematic campaign of "ethnic cleansing" conducted by the Serbian authorities there has been carefully executed with one single aim: to deport an entire people from their homeland, thereby denying the Kosovar Albanians their most basic rights to life, liberty and security.  The result is a humanitarian disaster throughout the entire region.  The United Nations agencies, led by the High Commissioner for Refugees, are struggling heroically to ensure that the relief and refuge needed is provided as quickly and effectively as possible.

We all deeply regret that the international community, despite months of diplomatic efforts, failed to prevent this disaster.

What gives me hope is that a universal sense of outrage has been provoked.  There is wide agreement that Serbian military, para-military and police forces must be withdrawn from Kosovo; that all the deportees be allowed to return unconditionally to their homes; and that an international military force be sent in to secure their lives and their liberty.

Over the past five weeks, I have been engaged intensely in seeking to secure the acceptance of these minimum conditions.  I will continue to do so.  None of us can witness the great crime committed against this innocent people without feeling a profound and abiding sense of outrage.

None of us can feel relieved until the inhuman policy behind it has been reversed and every deportee has returned in safety to his or her home, to rebuild their shattered lives.

Young friends,

I have made peace and progress in Africa a priority of my tenure as Secretary-General not only because I am an African, but because I believe that the United Nations cannot rest until all of Africa is at peace. 

As I stand before you today, I know that you share this belief.  I hope together we can help bring about the Africa that Africa deserves.  To succeed, we must think and act as Africans, as African-Americans, and as citizens of the world.  There is one world, after all, and it is ours.

Thank you.